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As an adult, why is it so hard to make friends?

It's natural for social circles to get smaller as we get older; but this can also lead to the risk of becoming socially isolated. Here are 8 tips to avoid this

As we grow older, our social circle has a huge impact on how we will do in our ‘Golden Years’
As we grow older, our social circle has a huge impact on how we will do in our ‘Golden Years’ (Pexels)

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Many of us in our late 30s may have realised that our social circles have thinned considerably. Weekend plans may mostly revolve around kids, families, or errands that we may have to run. As Bijal Patel, a 34 year old media executive based in Mumbai observes, “I had a huge social circle of friends when I got married. I remember there being at least 50 friends at my pre-wedding party. I remember getting back-to-back calls at 12 am on the night of my birthday. Now, no one calls me on my birthday night, I barely get a few messages and when I was making a list of people to invite for my daughter’s first birthday, there were very few names I could think of. I was stunned. How did this happen?”

Many others may echo the sentiment Patel feels as their social circles thin down considerably over the years. Arpan Srivastava, a 35-year-old sales manager based in Bengaluru realised this when he was planning a house-warming party recently, after successfully managing to become a home-owner. “I realised that the friends I had left were just colleagues from my workplace. That’s about it. I wasn’t in touch with anyone from school or college anymore. I felt lonelier than ever. And I felt very awkward reconnecting with everyone too.”

As we grow older, our social circle has a huge impact on how we will do in our ‘Golden Years’. A 2019 study led by researchers at University College London found that being more socially active in your 50s and 60s predicts a lower risk of developing dementia later in life. The study also supports the idea that remaining socially active in one’s 50s and 60s can benefit long-term cognitive health. But, given the alarming trend of the adult population becoming socially isolated, we examine what leads to this happening and how one can work around it.

Causes of isolation

Meenakshi Atawnia, the founder of The Cognitive Factor and trauma-informed counselling psychologist based in Delhi, points out that as one progresses into their late 30s or 40s, their responsibilities may increase with respect to family, personal/professional commitments, financial ability, risk management, etc. “Adults usually in this age range become caretakers for younger dependents (children) and even the older generation. This particularly holds value in a collectivist society such as India. Thus, the opportunity either shrinks because of lack of time, or the community narrows down significantly with whom they might interact on a regular basis,” she says. “However,” she adds, “It is important to note that there can always be exceptions to this. It also depends on individuals and their needs.”

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Shambhavi Kumaria, counselling psychologist at All Things Mental Health Counselling Services in Mohali observes that for adults, the loss of previous friendships which are now distant or foregone is extremely hard to bear and a lot of adults entering adulthood do not talk about or deal with this transition. “This itself forms one of the major reasons why socialisation is so difficult because not dealing with this leads us to close up as people and become very rigid in our approach and personality. We start thinking of people, friendships and relationships as a waste of time. It becomes difficult to trust people and the whole process of it all seems very tiring. The rigidity in our routines only adds up to our resistance to make new social circles, talk to people and socialise,” she elaborates.

Kumaria also adds that another reason why it is so difficult to socialise during adulthood is fear of judgement. She says that as kids and adolescents, we are very free in our thinking, our likes and dislikes. “Our whole social selves are geared around making friends,” she says. But, this is not the case when we are adults. In Kumaria’s opinion, as adults, we are constantly in fear of judgement and adults have to navigate different transitions in their careers and professional lives constantly and at every juncture. And hence, we are faced with the question of ‘are we good enough?' 

“This also creeps into our social circles and how we interact with people,” she points out. She further elaborates, “In India, socialisation is also a double-edged sword. Being an adult also means you are part of the ‘gossip circle’. In India gossiping isn’t merely limited to trying to figure out what’s going on in someone’s life or making quick assumptions about the same but it also includes derogatory and offensive remarks about other people.” Thus as an adult, we are rigid, we love our comfort zones and do not want to step out of it. We take less chances and are scared.

The wake-up call

While many may not realise this soon enough as they’re too caught up in the day-to-day rut of life, there are moments when it dawns upon you that you’ve been isolated and out-of-touch with people for a while. And that’s the moment you must decide to make a change. Atawnia says that one simple way to identify this is through personal reflection and requirements. “For example”, she says, “An individual may feel dissatisfaction with their social group, if they are not stimulating enough, maybe for growth or something else. If one feels that way they should reflect with a simple question in mind: What need is not being fulfilled? Is it personal or professional? Once they can deduce that they can work towards deducing the core belief or concern.”

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In Kumaria’s view, if you find yourself feeling lonely often, craving friendship or romantic intimacy often, feeling like your routine is a rut that you need to get out of, then an increase in screen time, hopping from one social/dating/marriage application to another and not actually making any meaningful connections are some of the things to look out for. All of these mean that you need to socialise more as an adult. Another sign, according to her, is a yearning for your past friendships, especially the ones that you have cut ties with, not the ones that you rarely meet and are in touch with in some way.

8 ways to make social connections

Kumaria shares some tips to hone one’s social skills as an adult:

Take it one step at a time: The shutting down and isolation during adulthood happens gradually, one step at a time. Thus, the process of revival could also be one step at a time and not rushed.

Get comfortable with going out: Take time out for yourself by going to the movies or cafe dates

Revive old contacts: Get back to those unanswered messages and calls Oftentimes, we do have friends/ a social circle and we do know how to socialise, we have just become resistant to the process, so try to make yourself more accepting of that process.

Go from online to offline: If the question is of honing your skills altogether a good place to start will be to get yourself out more and to try sparking conversations online and then trying them offline. With the increase in use of social applications to meet people, a good way to get out of the fear of talking would be going out and letting yourself have conversations.

Get back to your hobbies: When you’re in the process of taking time out for yourself, try doing some courses or getting back to your hobbies. You find people with the same niches and interests as you do.

Talk to people at work: Start making conversation with some of your colleagues after work, especially the ones who have extended to meet/include you.

Say ‘yes’ to invites: Given hectic adult routines, good opportunities to be utilised are not turning down invites, whenever possible. See opportunities as opportunities and not as threats to your sense of self.

Become a part of a social club: There are many events that happen like poetry readings, concerts, book clubs, etc. One can pick one of their liking and attend such clubs and spaces which are a great place for socialising.

Divya Naik is a Mumbai-based psychotherapist

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